|Issue No 83||09 February 2001|
Steelworkers Draw The Line
By Rowan Cahill
Industrial war has broken out on the NSW South Coast, with 4000 BHP Port Kembla steelworkers walking off the job this week.
On MOnday a mass meeting of the workers voted for a 24-hour strike and a campaign of rolling strikes and stoppages.
The regional press has used the words "blood on the streets" and "the gloves are off" to describe the tense industrial situation.
The dispute centres on the determination of BHP to outsource maintenance and protective services work at the plant, affecting some 800 jobs.
In late January more than 800 BHP workers walked off the job for 48 hours over the outsourcing issue.
For the last decade there has been a spirit of industrial cooperation at the plant. Steel unions and BHP management adopted a consultative approach to industrial relations. A variety of sophisticated strategies were used to incorporate workers into the BHP manufacturing vision (e.g. consultative committees, worker shareholding schemes, work teams, overseas fact-finding missions).
The strategy delivered improved business performance. BHP Steel is rated amongst the world's top five productive and profitable steel companies.
Improvements came through a variety of reorganised work practices, including multi-skilling, increased responsibilities, speed-ups, overtime increases, and the efforts of an almost halved work force.
Workers and their unions were prepared to accept the situation, so long as the integrity of the consultative process was apparent, and the long term security of Port Kembla jobs was not at risk.
Trouble is that Port Kembla has finally been caught up in the ruthless drive for profits and increased share prices evident elsewhere in the BHP empire.
In recent years BHP closed its Newcastle steelworks, ruthlessly axing 4000 jobs, arguably with little regard for the city that to a great extent depended on the plant. On the Southern coalfields of NSW, 800 jobs have been cut; in Queensland another 200 mining jobs are on the line.
The company appears to have a cavalier disregard for the loyalty and well being of workers and families whose lives have become entwined with the company over generations.
Significantly, in BHP's Pilbara iron ore operations, West Australia, the company has won the right to replace collective agreements with 1000 individual agreements, paving the way for contractors and deunionisation.
Driving the 'big Australian' is the global corporatism of chief executive Paul Anderson, an American troubleshooter pocketing $7.4 million per year in salary and stock options.
Whilst BHP steelworkers delivered a profit last financial year of $410 million, a 53 percent increase on the previous year, this is not good enough. The trouble is that in terms of capital investment, steel does not return the superior profit percentages that BHP investments in oil, natural gas, and mineral resources do.
The Port Kembla steel unions have drawn a line. The dogged drive by BHP to outsource maintenance jobs at the plant is seen as a violation of the good faith and cooperation invested by workers and their unions in a decade of the stakeholder approach to industrial relations.
It is feared the current determination to outsource is prelude to ongoing outsourcing at the plant, along with job losses, individual contracts, deunionisation.
The long term abdication of BHP's interest in Port Kembla steel cannot be ruled out as corporate strategy takes the company into lusher pastures of profit.
Reacting to Monday's expressions of militancy, BHP flat products president Lance Hockridge said the planned industrial action would not make "one scintilla of difference" to BHP policy, while intimating that the militant stance of the unions was old hat and out of place.
The Port Kembla unrest comes on the heels of an uneasy peace on the BHP Illawarra coalfields. After 22 days of industrial action, 300 miners ended a 24 hour stoppage last Wednesday week, pending further negotiations with the company.
Their bitter, three-month battle for new enterprise agreements also involves the issues of job security, increased use of casuals, and changes to long-held conditions.
Meanwhile, doing the rounds of the South Coast is a document listing 174 Illawarra companies variously dependent on the BHP steelworks.
Titled SOS (Save Our Steelworks), the document is the work of an anonymous author/publisher. It shows that BHP feeds $320 million per year in direct ages into the local economy, employs 5500 people directly, while another 13500 have local financial links.
It is understood BHP management is furious about the document. The quality of the information presented suggests it comes from in-house BHP records, either the work of a mole or a hacker.
Also BHP seems intent on hosing down informed public discussion about its long term Port Kembla plans, and the company's responsibilities to the region.
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